THUNDER MEETS LIGHTNING: REVISITING THE EPIC CHAVEZ V TAYLOR SHOWDOWN

It was just two months in to 1990 before the new decade produced one of the biggest upsets in all of sports history when James ‘Buster’ Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Then just over a month later, a fight that would carve out its own place in fistic legend took place. The titanic clash between undefeated champions Julio Cesar Chavez and Meldrick Taylor left all those that witnessed it in shock, awe, and exhilaration at the incredible action and a truly astonishing and controversial finish.

Chavez (66-0, 56 KO’s) was already an all-time great and recognised as pound for pound the best fighter in the business. The man from Culiacan, Mexico had captured four titles in three divisions, defeating such established opponents as Rocky Lockridge, Roger Mayweather (twice), Juan Laporte, Edwin Rosario and Jose Luis Ramirez, and was the reigning WBC ten stone champion. An extraordinary pressure fighter, straight out of the traditional Mexican mold, he expertly cut off the ring whilst delivering pinpoint straight rights to the head and debilitating left hooks to the liver. He was the best pressure fighter in the sport, backing up his offence with a granite chin and underrated defence.

Taylor (24-0, 14 KO’s) was seen as one of the most exciting young talents in all of boxing. Having won Olympic gold at the 1984 games, at the tender age of just 17, he had served a tough apprenticeship, beating hardened professionals Harold Brazier and Primo Ramos, whilst being held to a draw with former world title challenger Howard Davis Jr. He won the IBF junior welterweight title with an upset twelfth round stoppage of James ‘Buddy’ McGirt and had retained the title twice. His blurring handspeed and slick boxing ability belied the fact that he was “all Philadelphian” at heart. The fighting history oozed through his veins as the notion of being a “Philly fighter”, a fighter who wore their heart on their sleeve and gave every last drop with an unbreakable fighting spirit, came with the upmost pride from the famed City of Brotherly Love. However, this desire to get involved had made some nights harder than they should have been.

Their opposing styles gave the promotion the name of “Thunder Meets Lightning” and the unification between two of the finest fighters on the planet was set for 17 March 1990 at the Hilton hotel, Las Vegas. To say it was eagerly anticipated was an understatement.

ROUND ONE…

Chavez entered first, a red headband matching his red and gold robe. Calm and cool, he waved a small Mexican flag upon entering the ring. Taylor followed, dressed in a hooded robe sporting the red, white and blue of the USA and accompanied by fellow Olympians and stablemates Pernell Whitaker and Evander Holyfield. Ray Charles “America the beautiful” echoed throughout the arena.

The atmosphere was electric as ring announcer Chuck Hall introduced both participants. As they came together to hear referee Richard Steele’s final instructions, neither man looked at each other. Both glanced down as adrenaline pumped through their system, bouncing up and down on their toes, eager to hear the sound of the first bell.

Chavez, as expected, took ring centre, aiming to make the ring feel like a phone booth. Taylor went straight to work behind the jab, slick movement allowing him keep Chavez from getting set. Chavez success came from his right, thrown as a lead to counter Taylor’s jab which he brought back low. But the American’s ability to put his punches together quicker earned him the opener.

ROUND TWO…

Round two opened the same with Taylor in command behind his jab as Chavez figured out a way to pin down his speedy rival. Chavez displayed some slick defensive moves himself though, slipping Taylor’s jab and deftly using his feet to move back out of range. He started to find the range too, landing a strong one two before delivering short left hooks to both the head and body. Taylor felt the weight of his punch too, evident by the blood on his lips. His instinct was encouraging him to exchange shots with Chavez and it was evident that the Mexican warrior was carrying the “thunder”. In between rounds Taylor’s trainer, former middleweight contender and one of the finest trainers in boxing, George Benton, employed his charge to get back behind the jab, particularly aiming at Chavez chest, a simple but highly effective strategy designed to knock the wind out of an opponent due to the position of the lungs. But keeping a bull like Chavez at bay was a completely different prospect. However, Taylor’s fiercely competitive spirit would not allow him to back down.

ROUND THREE – FOUR – FIVE…

The third continued the pattern, with Taylor flashing the tremendous hand speed he was famous for, out-landing Chavez comfortably. He met him on the inside, whipping hooks up and down as Chavez looked to derail Taylor’s momentum. Chavez punches, though few, were causing slight puffiness around Taylor’s eyes, but Taylor put the round in the bank, even respectfully patting Chavez backside at the end of the round. Taylor continued his impressive performance, taking both the fourth and fifth rounds, outpunching Chavez by four to one, especially on the inside. His hand speed was dazzling the Mexican as frustration started to appear.

ROUND SIX…

Taylor took round six too, but Chavez was now starting to find his range. The American’s power was clearly not fazing Chavez who’s single shots certainly carried more power. But at the half way point, he was clearly down on the judges scorecards and was struggling to cut off the ring against his “lightening” fast opponent.

ROUND SEVEN…

The seventh saw the action drop to the inside as Chavez started to have success. Short, chopping rights and hooks landed on Taylor’s jaw but he still managed to outpunch Chavez once again.

ROUND EIGHT…

Round eight saw not only the pace drop, but also a change in approach from Chavez. He started to box from distance, finding Taylor more than he had all night. Taylor’s face was showing the damage from Chavez punches with swelling around both eyes and blood still trickling from his mouth. Yet his fists still moved with a blur, although this was the closest round of the fight so far. Chavez corner were frantic at the end of the round. Encouragement was attached to national pride as they urged him to put a stop to the whirlwind in front of him.

ROUND NINE…

The pair went to town at the start of the ninth, exchanging punches as the crowd roared with excitement. They raked each other with uppercuts and hooks to the body as Taylor continued to work in flurries. But Chavez punches still looked sturdier when they landed, particularly his right cross. The action was relentless and Taylor was well ahead, but he was absorbing punishment in completing his crusade, finishing the round now bleeding from the nose. However, he would not be denied.

ROUND TEN…

At the bell to start round ten, Taylor let loose with a blistering assault, hammering Chavez with a machine gun attack as the crowd shrieked with exhilaration. But the one thing the proud Mexican possessed was a cast-iron chin, and he rode through the storm, concentrating right back on his own attack. Suddenly, the fight appeared to drain out of Taylor, his tremendous effort and pace catching him up as Chavez upped the ante. He was clearly shaken several times as short hooks crashed against the side of his jaw. Chants of “Me-hico” from Chavez supporters rang around the arena as they sensed a big shift in the tide.

ROUND ELEVEN…

As they came out for the eleventh, Taylor was showing the effects of the nights battle. Unable to move as he had earlier, he went straight in to the pocket with Chavez, again ripping punches with incredible speed. But he was now in range and Chavez was now inflicting more damage with his shots. Taylor’s incredible heart would not stop him from exchanging blows but Chavez pressure was finally paying off. As the bell rang out, ending a tremendous round, Chavez corner pleaded with their man to go for a knockout or risk facing the loss of his long, unbeaten record. Taylor’s corner instructed him to keep boxing and focus on completing the most notable win of his career.

ROUND TWELFTH…

Round twelve began. Taylor tried to get back behind his jab, but the weariness in his legs was there for all to see. Chavez had a calm, almost bewildered, look about him, showing no real sense of urgency, but having an inner confidence that he could produce a miracle. Time ticked by as the crowd roared with what they were anticipating. Taylor wore the look of a beat up fighter but kept those incredible hands moving. Then with twenty four seconds on the clock remaining, the miracle started to unfold. A big right from Chavez turned Taylor’s legs to rubber. Taylor stumbled forward, still trying to punch, falling towards the corner. Chavez pivoted away before a crushing right cross sent Taylor down in a heap. The crowd screamed in amazement at what they were watching. Taylor bravely dragged himself up, listening as referee Steele shouted the mandatory eight count at him. Upon completion, he twice asked Taylor if he was okay. Taylor did not respond, instead glancing towards his corner. Richard Steele waved off the fight. Just two seconds remained on the clock.

Whilst Chavez was hoisted on his handlers shoulders and paraded around the ring, Taylor’s manager and co-trainer Lou Duva rushed in to the ring, fiercely disputing the finish, pointing to the corner post to indicate that the red light had been flashing right in front of Steele to indicate that there had only been ten seconds of the round remaining whilst he was counting Taylor. But things calmed quickly when the ringside doctor sat Taylor down for a routine check. With both eyes swollen and blood coming from both his mouth and nose, Taylor certainly had the look of a beat up fighter.

Richard Steele vehemently defended his actions, saying his only priority was the welfare of the fighter. Opinion was split as to whether the decision was the correct one. In the post fight interview, Chavez praised Taylor, agreeing that a rematch should happen. Taylor naturally insisted that he should have been allowed to continue, as did Duva who called the decision “bullshit”. He asserted that in a fight of this magnitude, Taylor should have been given the chance to hear the final bell. If he had, he would have won a decision (shockingly, a split one as one judge had Chavez inexplicably ahead). It appeared that a rematch would be the only way to determine a proper victor.

Both men saw their profiles raised in the aftermath, but the expected return wouldn’t happen for another four years. By that time, both men were two different fighters than the ones who met that night in 1990. Chavez finally suffered his first defeat in fight number 91 when Frankie Randall knocked him down and took both a split decision and his WBC title. He regained it in an immediate rematch, but the wear and tear of a long career was starting to show.

As for Taylor, the defeat robbed him mentally. Despite stepping up to welterweight to win the WBA title from Aaron Davis, something appeared to be missing. He was dropped twice by Glenwood Brown in a title defence and was destroyed in four rounds by the larger and more powerful Terry Norris in an attempt at the WBC super welterweight title. Dropping back down to welter to defend his title, he wore the look of a burnt out fighter, being stopped in eight by Crisanto Espana. As brave as he was, the opposition was just too big.

A move back down to 140 lbs saw him finally secure the long awaited rematch. They came together on 17 September 1994 at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas. In an entertaining battle, Taylor started fast early again but Chavez was still clearly the heavier handed. The fight lacked the added drama of the first though, with Chavez breaking down the fading Taylor, flooring and halting him in the eighth.

The night of 17 March 1990 will long live in the memory of so many. The fight was named Fight of the Year by Ring Magazine and also named Fight of the Decade for the ’90’s, a huge honour considering the decade was just three months old. Like Ali and Frazier, it tied the names of Chavez and Taylor together for ever. It also reminded us that it was just two seconds that separated monumental victory and heartbreaking defeat. Two seconds that saved Chavez unbeaten streak and enhanced his growing legend. Two seconds that ripped away a career changing victory for Taylor. And two seconds that will continue to be talked about and debated for many more years to come.